From Rent Regs to Rezonings, 2019 Will Feature Key Housing Policy Fights

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Picture the Homeless

Homelessness, public housing, rent regulations and the mayor’s affordable housing plan are sometimes discussed separately. But in reality, and in the mix of policymaking likely to occur in 2019, those borders blur.

It was the first slushy, snow day of the year for New Yorkers on November 15 and the city was unprepared — but that did not stop hundreds of activists, residents and organizations from marching through the downtown streets for fair housing and stronger rent laws.

The protesters came from every part of the city and state to gather outside the Bowling Green subway station across from Battery Park. By 5 p.m. the temperature had dropped and there was a mix of hail, snow and rain in the air. But the protesters were just warming up on the makeshift drums they banged as they yelled “Stand up, fight back.”

“We came here from Rochester because this is not just a New York City problem,” said Kawanais Smith, a Tenants Union member and president of the Southview Towers Tenant Association. “We are here for the eviction protections [from] the governor and our local politicians. We don’t have rent control in upstate. You have housing court and we don’t have that there. Our senators and Assembly members can bring this to the governor. We need leaders that can lead.”

John Lindsey, another Rochester resident, says he has been living in horrible conditions in his building. He claimed his landlord allowed the property to turn into a wasteland and wants landlords to be responsible for creating healthy living conditions for residents.

For 51-year-old artist and Williamsburg resident Shije Moriya, it was about the fear of losing his neighborhood. He said all his friends and neighbors are gone in his part of Brooklyn. “Right now, [my landlord] is trying to kick us out. I live in a loft space but because my window looks out to the garage and a little bit of the main street — he is trying to raise the rent. We are trying to fight him in court because loft law should apply to us. And he is fighting back.”

Rent regs top the agenda

Nearly a million apartments in the city and several thousand in other urban areas in the state are under rent stabilization, which limits annual rent increase to the guidelines passed by a local board–in the city’s case, the Rent Guidelines Board. Rent-stabilized units are seen as a key bulwark against displacement, but tens of thousands of these apartments have disappeared from the program under changes in state law in the 1990s.

Four features of the rent-stabilization system have been in the spotlight in recent years. One is high-rent or high-income vacancy decontrol, by which a rent-stabilized unit leaves the program if its rent exceeds $2,700 or the tenant-household’s income exceeds $200,000.

Another is the vacancy bonus, which allows landlords to boost rent by 20 percent every time a lease changes hands.

A third is preferential rent, which is when an owner charges less than the legal rent–creating the threat of a sudden, massive increase in rent far larger than the year-to-year increases approved by the Rent Guidelines Board.

Finally, major capital improvements (MCIs) are when property owners increase rents, ostensibly based on the costs of improvements or installations to a building: Tenant advocates say these increases often end up generating far more revenue–at the tenants’ expense–than the actual MCI cost. A related issue is Individual Apartment Improvements, through which a landlord is allowed to boost a single unit’s rent because of work done there.

In August, during Cuomo’s primary gubernatorial campaign against Cynthia Nixon, housing became an important platform element for both candidates. Nixon’s campaign promised to push for universal rent control and abolish major capital improvements, vacancy decontrol and bonuses, and to strengthen tenant protection programs.

Cuomo, who won the primary easily, did not embrace universal rent control but did make promises to improve rent stabilization laws in the coming year. Cuomo’s campaign told City Limits the governor wants to end vacancy decontrol, make preferential rent the legal rent, make the surcharges for apartment and building improvements temporary rather than permanent, and “further limit or eliminate vacancy bonuses to ensure landlords aren’t rewarded financially for schemes to force tenants out.”

While Cuomo points with pride to his housing record, tenant advocates have not always been happy with his leadership on rent regulations during the two renewals that occurred during his first (in 2011) and second term (in 2015). But the State Senate has always been the bigger stumbling block to tougher rent regulations. Now that the Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the legislature, advocates hope for sweeping change.

A couple of days before the march, dozens of housing advocates, for-profit and nonprofit developers, tenant advocates and labor union stakeholders created a coalition, Housing Justice for All, demanding an agreement on proposals to reform the state’s rent laws, set to expire on June 15, 2019.

Another coalition of tenants, developers and advocates have also united for better rent regulations. The coalition includes Enterprise Community Partners, Legal Aid Society, the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH), New York Housing Conference, Community Service Society, AARP New York, Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, DC37, Coalition for the Homeless, VOCAL-NY, Center for NYC Neighborhoods, LISC NYC, Supportive Housing Network of New York, Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), LeadingAge New York, LiveOn NY, Housing Rights Initiative and Neighborhood Preservation Coalition of New York State.

The coalitions are demanding state leaders to end high-rent vacancy decontrol, restore preferential rent protections, and reform vacancy bonuses, major capital improvements and individual apartment improvements.

“Their business model is to displace the tenants who are there and to get more money — that is predatory equity,” said Delsenia Glover,executive director of Tenants and Neighbors, about developers who speculate on real estate. Glover had joined the protest along with other members from her organizations.

Marchers made their way through downtown — blocking traffic and pedestrians — to 123 Williams Street. The specific address belongs to the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade association that represents 25,000 property owners in the residential housing industry. Dozens of protestors made their way to the office to place an eviction notice on the office door while hundreds chanted “Oh, the rent is too damn high” outside on the street.

Rent Stabilization Association director of governmental affairs Frank Ricci says the political change in Albany will only meaningfully help tenants if policymakers realize that rent-stabilization laws are only part of the economic reality that shapes the local housing market. “They keep talking about limits on MCIs,” he says. “Owners will stop making improvements. Roofers, mechanics, waterproofers will lose jobs and the people who live there in the house will suffer. There is a ripple effect. Anything they do to limit a landlord’s cash flow is going to affect tenants and workers. You have to get beyond the slogans. [Housing] is a very complicated issue in New York.”

Both the major pro-landlord political action committees, the RSA PAC and the Neighborhood Preservation PAC, contributed heavily to campaign committees during the 2018 elections. The RSA PAC contributed an estimated $50,000 to NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee and $10,000 each towards campaigns for Senate seats upstate and on Long Island. The Neighborhood Preservation PAC contributed over $100,000 dollars towards the Northeast Democratic Club, NYS Senate Republican Committee, the NYS Republican Assembly Campaign Committee and four smaller donations of $10,000 towards campaigns for state senatorial seats in upstate and Long Island.

Homelessness remains a crisis

Housing and homelessness advocates said they will continue pushing for more funding in the budget and support on homelessness issues that affect New Yorkers across the state and city. Their optimism is tempered somewhat by experience. Shelly Nortz, Coalition for the Homeless deputy executive director for policy, says, “We have been through this before when the Senate was in the hands of Democrats 10 years ago.” Still, the landscape is different now from the brief period of Democratic control, which was complicated by a budget crisis and marred by an intra-party coup. The Dems now enjoy a 40-23 advantage and have several progressive rookies in the conference. “They have an enormous number of new members,” Nortz says.

Nortz said the focus of the Coalition for the Homeless was to hold old and new (and both state and city) elected officials accountable. “We have pledges from both the mayor and governor on building affordable housing for homeless people,” she says. “Their plan is incomplete by a long-shot.” Nortz critiqued the state’s spending and the drawn-out design of the city’s plan. She said the governor had not fully funded the 20,000 supportive housing units he promised, that only 6,000 units were completely funded in his billion-dollar housing plan. As for Mayor de Blasio’s approach to supportive housing, “Spreading 15,000 units over 15 years doesn’t really get us where we need to be. We will keep pushing the development of those [units]. We don’t need another study to tell us adequate rent subsidies address homelessness by preventing it and keeping people permanently housed.”

According to the latest city’s Department of Homeless Service census, there are 60,990 homeless individuals — over 22,000 of them children — in the city’s shelter system. According to DHS, in July the city consolidated several rent subsidy programs including the Living in Communities (LINC I, II, III, IV and V) programs, along with the Special Exit and Prevention Supplement (SEPS), and City Family Eviction Prevention and Exit Plan Supplements into one streamlined system, the Fighting Homelessness & Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS) program, a unified rental assistance program that should simplify the process to identify and secure permanent housing units for homeless individuals and families. Homeless advocates say those programs help but have consistently pushed the city to set aside more new affordable units and NYCHA apartments for people looking to get out of the shelters.

Public housing and Housing New York

Meanwhile, those who already are in public housing face debilitating housing conditions. Earlier this month, a federal judge rejected a proposed settlement that would have imposed a monitor to oversee NYCHA and required large amounts of city spending after the country’s largest public housing authority was found to be in a severely deterioration condition characterized by lead paint, broken boilers, mold and rodent infestations.

A week later after the federal judge’s decision, the de Blasio administration announced the city would be bring repairs to 62,000 NYCHA housing units through leveraging public and private partnerships through the federal housing program Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). The city said the move would address an estimated $13 billion in repairs which include maintenance, ongoing operations renovations such as new kitchens, bathrooms, replacing windows, elevators, boilers and roofs. RAD converts NYCHA apartments into the Section 8 federal housing program then developers lease the buildings to operate as private landlords and collecting subsidies. The program does include tenant protections that prevent developers from converting NYCHA apartments into market-rate units.

NYCHA also continues to look at developing what it deems underused land into new housing, some of it 100 percent affordable and some a 50/50 mix of affordable and market rate.

It’s almost five years since the de Blasio administration announced its housing plan and intention to rezone over a dozen neighborhoods, which now aim to create 300,000 affordable housing units, across the five boroughs.

In Staten Island, the Bay Street Corridor rezoning plan and its environmental impact study was released this month and the plan expects to see a final vote next year in the summer. In Brooklyn, the Bushwick community plan for its rezoning was released in September and Councilmember Antonio Reynoso’s office expects a environmental impact study on the rezoning study area in the spring of next year. The Gowanus rezoning report and overview was released in June and DCP said the proposed zoning for Gowanus has been scheduled to be released this winter.

In Manhattan, the proposed Two Bridges skyscrapers, which have triggered intense opposition and scrutiny of the way the city manages a particular set of land-use regulations, could also see definitive action in 2019, although the timeline for the vote on the Two Bridges application has not been finalized.

In the Bronx, for the Southern Boulevard Study — centered around the Sheridan Expressway — DCP has been meeting with community members during planning workshops. After those workshops, there are plans for an open house in the spring focused on shaping draft strategies with outreach opportunities throughout the process for community input that will eventually shape the plan. Tentatively, DCP is aiming to release draft strategies in the second quarter of 2019. It is too early to say whether and when a formal rezoning proposal would enter the environmental review process or land-use review procedure.

Those rezoning efforts will follow ULURP, the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure a standardized procedure whereby applications affecting the land use of the city are publicly reviewed. The ULURP process itself is at center-stage in the city’s 2019 Charter Commission revision process (which is Council led, in contrast to the mayor-led effort to led to three ballot questions this past Election Day.)

The City Council Charter Revision Commission, with 15 members, has received a bevy of proposals for how to make the land-use process more inclusive. The Commission has already held a few public hearings and is scheduled to hold a vote on specific issues it will move forward; then another round of public hearings will be conducted. It is expected to hand in its final proposal report in the fall of next year.

Meanwhile, a key court case about the use of community preference in affordable housing deals, efforts to revise the city’s property tax system and the city’s fair-housing assessment could also shape the housing-policy storyline in 2019.

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